Local Vanderhoof author June Wood recently wrote her second book describing the Nechako River. The book covers the construction of the Kenney Dam and the controversial Kemano Completion Project and the reactions of the locals.
Since I am not a local to the area of Vanderhoof, I grew up in the Okanagan Valley, this book introduced me to the rich history of this region. I found out about the terrible tragedy of the Ta-cullies and the battle with Alcan for the rivers.
Wood’s first book was more about her father and the land while this one is more of a story of the locals against the government, the Natives against the corporations, an underdog story filled with tragedy.
The book narrates the period when Alcan took advantage of the Aboriginals and forged treaties and even flooded graveyards. It chronicles the history of a once mighty river, the Nechako.
“The fact that the Nechako White sturgeon is on the endangered species list and on the very brink of extinction is a clear indication that the Nechako river is not a healthy functioning river,” said June Wood in an interview.
Wood describes the book herself as written for the people.
“A tribute to the people who fought for the river,” she said. “There were so many people involved in the fight to save the Nechako, and in the end, after the hearings, the Kemano II was completed and we didn’t gain any water for the river. But we didn’t lose any either so I guess we won.”
From the foreword by local Craig Hooper, a reader can see that this will be a tale of heartache and hard work.
“I have also seen Cheslatta elders who from a distance looked as if they were picking wildflowers along the shore but instead were gathering the bones of their loved ones from the sand and, eyes filled with tears, placing them in a black body bag held by an RCMP officer.”
While it does provide an excellent history lesson on the region the book tends to get bogged down in details. About a third of the book contains so many names of rivers, lands, and peoples that it’s hard for me to keep track of what is actually being discussed. Although I’m sure a local could see all the names and instantly know what’s going on.
From this staggering amount of information one can understand that a lot of research went into writing it.
“I kept a lot of data that we collected over the years, I had a lot of it here at my fingertips it was just a matter of going through it. But I did also interview people and gather information from other sources.”
“Everyone was really helpful” she said. “I had a lot of help along the way.”
Some of the best parts of the book are the personal parts June has written in. At one point, Wood describes how her sister and herself splashed in the waters of the once mighty river with fish lying gasping in the warm puddles. But Wood told me that the publishers wanted her to pull more of the personal things out.
“I also tried to write just the facts and get the information out. I tried to keep my own acerbic comments out,” she said while laughing.
Wood found it a little difficult publishing her first book but by the second she understood the process and was more patient with the publishers and editors, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t put her foot down in some areas. The publishers didn’t think that writing about the pine beetle epidemic and the Nechako River in the same book would work. But it did, the story plays out in June Wood’s life and the beetle epidemic is a story, she was sure, needed to be told.
“I stuck to my guns and it’s all in one book for better or worse… you really can’t separate the river from the land because what happens on the land affects the river, theres a strong connection there and I don’t know if got that across well enough in my book.”
My favourite parts were when Wood includes songs and poems from the era, including “Return” by Pat Harrison Roach. In these poems we can hear the sorrowful voices of the farmers and regular people who loved their homes.
I asked Wood if there was one thing she would like for readers to take away from the book.
“That we paid a heavy price,” she said. “That the river and the valley paid a heavy price for that dam and for the smelter in Kitimat.
“A lot people in Vanderhoof weren’t around when this happened, they see the river as it is now and they accept that this is the Nechako River. They have no idea what the river was and what it could be.”